The race to provide high-speed internet from satellites is on, but another more ambitious competition, to connect devices like smartphones directly from space, began in earnest earlier this year.
The untapped potential market, which depends on sending a text through space but extends beyond it, is fueling a tale of two strategies: those putting specialized antennas on phones, versus those putting high-power antennas on phones. the satellites themselves. For some companies, it means billions spent on what could end up being a losing approach.
“The satellite industry is really niche and if they can connect billions of smartphones, they can start talking about market sizes that are much larger than they’ve ever been able to address before. It’s all been in the millions before.” Caleb Henry, a senior analyst at boutique research firm Quilty Analytics, told CNBC.
A large number of projects and partners, from Apple, iridiumspaceX, T Mobile Y AT&T, among others, have come to the fore in 2022, in various stages of development to connect directly to smartphones. It has long been a dream of satellite communications visionaries, but bulky, specialized and typically expensive satellite phones have failed to appeal to the masses.
Now, an evolution in technology is renewing the race to perfect space-based communications, according to Patricia Cooper, founder of Constellation Advisory and former SpaceX vice president for satellite government affairs.
“One of the differences [from earlier generations] it’s the capability of today’s satellites in low Earth orbit, which means they might be able to deliver more than just some kind of text, or almost like a pager service,” Cooper said.
SpaceX this summer announced a partnership that would allow T-Mobile users to send messages from places unreachable by terrestrial cell phone towers, using SpaceX’s second generation of Starlink satellites.
CEO Elon Musk He said the larger, upgraded Starlink satellites would feature wide antennas that could broadcast directly to a mobile device, and T-Mobile hopes to eventually add voice calls through the satellites.
Although SpaceX has launched more than 3,000 first-generation satellites Until now, adding direct service to the phone will require thousands more.
The association is similar to those made by AST SpaceMobile. company last month launched its second test satellite into orbit and has agreements with mobile telecommunications, including AT&T, Vodafone and Rakuten. the satellite company went public through a SPAC last year and has raised nearly $600 million to date.
The AST network would consist of fewer satellites than the Starlink constellation, but still requires nearly 250 to be deployed for global coverage.
Private company Lynk Global also aims to provide a cell tower in space from satellites, with plans for a constellation of several thousand within a few years. Lynk has raised about $25 million since it was founded in 2017. So far, it has launched five test satellites into orbit.
The company announced that it sent “the world’s first text message from an orbiting satellite to a standard mobile phone on the ground” in early 2020.
And while some are building satellite networks, other major players are interested in terrestrial innovations, with systems that rely on a specialized antenna in phones.
Apple – the leading provider of smartphone satellite communications so far, albeit with limited capacity to start – recently announced an emergency feature of iPhone 14 models that takes advantage of technology. In alliance with global starthe feature allows users to send compressed text messages from iPhone 14s via satellites.
Apple is willing to spend more than $400 million to use most of Globalstar’s network and add more satellites to it.
iridium, a longtime provider of satellite communications for specialty phones, has yet to announce a partner for direct service to smartphones. But last month, CEO Matt Desch told CNBC at the World Satellite Business Week 2022 conference that his company has been “working on that opportunity.”
Iridium expects to finalize a contract with a smartphone partner by the end of 2022, and Desch said “our service will be global day one” when it launches.
Companies must overcome key technological and regulatory hurdles to bring these long-imagined networks to market.
“So far, all services are starting with the minimally intensive services they can provide, and that’s texting,” said Quilty Analytics’ Henry. “The true testament to the level of service each of these companies will be able to provide will ultimately depend on how many satellites they can launch, how powerful the satellites are and how much spectrum they have access to.”
Both Henry and Cooper said the regulatory unknowns around these kinds of services will be a particular challenge for enterprise networks. Telecommunications is “a heavily regulated area,” Cooper said, and “there aren’t many scenarios where the rules are set for the first time for a new technological innovation.”
He also emphasized the true scope of the market and how lucrative it could be remains to be seen.
“I don’t think we know how this is going to be paid for. We don’t know if the market will be determined by how much the cellular companies will pay the satellite companies to partner and invest.” [in constellation infrastructure]or if it will be paid for by consumers and it will add pennies to their bill and that will be passed on to the satellite companies,” Cooper said.
“Until we know that, we can’t know the scale,” Cooper added.